Harold Cohen

Before the Event


Not on display

Harold Cohen 1928–2016
Tempera and oil paint on canvas
Support: 2490 × 2930 mm
Purchased 1986

Catalogue entry

T04856 Before the Event 1963

Tempera and oil on canvas 2489 × 2928 (98 × 115 1/4)
Inscribed ‘Harold Cohen | “BEFORE THE EVENT” | JULY 1963 London’ on back of canvas left of centre and an arrow with the word ‘TOP’ on back of canvas top centre
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Exh: Dunn International, AC, Tate Gallery, Nov.–Dec. 1963 (14, repr.); Documenta III, Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, June–Oct. 1964 (no number, repr. p.332); Harold Cohen: Paintings 1960–1965, Whitechapel Art Gallery, May–June 1965 (36, repr.)
Lit: Klaus Hoffmann, ‘Beispiele der neuen Ornamentik’, Das Kunstwerk, vol.19, Oct. 1965, pp.23–4, repr. p.9; Bryan Robertson, ‘Introduction’ in Harold Cohen: Paintings 1960–1965, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery 1965, p.14; Pamela McCorduck, Aaron's Code: Meta-Art, Artificial Intelligence, and the Work of Harold Cohen, New York 1991, pp.11–13, 30–1, repr. between pp.78–9 (col.). Also repr: Art in America, vol.52, no.2, March/April 1964, p.74

‘Before the Event’ is one of a group of paintings made in 1963. It consists of diagrammatic motifs, of differing scale and type, arranged in vertical groupings across the canvas. The ground is white with an area of red to the right and a vertical blue stripe which divides the image into two parts. The abstract shapes are brightly coloured in red, pink, blue, gold, turquoise and black and have been compared by the artist to ‘marks or diagrams on a blackboard’ (quoted in McCorduck 1991, p.11). The individual serpentine forms, some of which are rendered as if in three-dimensional perspective, resemble sections of biological or medical diagrams, segments of pipes or cables, muscular fibres, even map-like contours and ladders.

T04856 was painted in July 1963 in London. In reply to a questionnaire sent by the compiler, the artist wrote on 31 January 1995 that he did not work on ‘Before the Event’ from preparatory drawings or sketches. Cohen further stated that he worked on the canvas in a vertical position, and applied the paint with brushes. Cohen could not remember whether or not he had intended the title to convey anything about the nature of the painting. However, Pamela McCorduck, in her book Aaron's Code: Meta-Art, Artificial Intelligence, and the Work of Harold Cohen, (1991, pp.12–13) has speculated on the meaning of the title:

at a higher level of regard, to what event does the picture's title refer? Maybe multiple events: the lovers' joy in the passion before (a word itself of multiple meanings - ‘previous to the time’; ‘in the face of’, ‘under the overwhelming influence of’) the event of reproduction. At the same time, the scientist's joy in the intellectual passion before (again, with all its meanings) the events of understanding, representing, explaining, and replication - each central to the scientific experimental method, by the way.

A few months after painting T04856 Cohen wrote:

For me, painting must come about in response to an outside, not an inside, situation. It is what the painting is about that counts, and the middle-aged idea of ‘relationships’ is a very dull idea, unless a relationship within the painting stands for something outside the painting. Yet it's not that simple. Of course painting refers to the outside world: but in seeing, it sees itself seeing: it records, and records its own act of recording. It makes communication possible, and much of what is communicated is concerned with the mechanics and processes of communication. And where it is most meaningful, it questions most profoundly what may be meant by meaning. It is self-analytical, self-critical, and possessed of this finely balanced feed-back system, self-controlling.

(Harold Cohen, ‘Introduction’ in Harold Cohen, exh. cat., Robert Fraser Gallery, Sept.–Oct. 1963, [p.1])

In his preface to Cohen's 1965 Whitechapel exhibition John Richardson commented on the complexity of the imagery in ‘Before the Event’: ‘So complex is the organisation of this and other paintings of the series that one is not surprised to find Cohen comparing their layout to that of a mind, or “memory bank”’ (‘Introduction’ in Harold Cohen, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery 1965, p.14). Richardson went on to quote Cohen (ibid.):

I had been much concerned with the problem of interpretation, and the apparent paradox it implied. For, though the artist has no way of knowing what the spectator sees in the painting - and the essential differences of genetic structure, environment, pre-dispositions and so on make it quite certain that he will not see the same as the artist sees: nonetheless, there is evidently an act of communion brought about by the painting. I did not believe that the artist's function was merely to provide the spectator with raw, and random, materials for his own artistic activity. Consequently, I tried to form an image of what the mind must be like, and of how the perception of a painting ‘fitted in’; and in a seminar paper I suggested, without great originality, the analogy of the computer. But this particular computer would have its memory bank arrayed on a field, rather than stored in an index; and while the material in the field, and the interconnections and circuits built up between the parts would vary from individual to individual, the general pattern of circuit-building and incorporating new material would not. What was special about the material in a painting was that it would not only contain information new to the spectator - absent, that is, from the field of his mind - but it would also contain information regarding its own incorporation; its own wiring instructions, so to speak. It was only a good deal later that I realised that the way in which I laid out paintings like ‘Before the Event’ was itself analogous to this field concept.

Cohen further explaind that his comparison of the layout of works such as ‘Before the Event’ to that of a mind or a ‘memory bank’ was ‘A metaphor, intended to stress the fact that memory is not linear, but highly referential’ (letter to the compiler).

During the 1960s Cohen was especially concerned with issues of representation. ‘Although I was never a representational painter in any orthodox sense’, he stated (McCorduck, pp.10–11), ‘the central issue for me was very much the question of representation. How is it that the marks you make take on certain kinds of meaning’. One possible interpretation of ‘Before the Event’ is provided by McCorduck who sees the painting as ‘thematically concerned with the hierarchical levels of reproduction, from the lowest level of molecular replication, a defining property of life, to the highest level, the act of human procreation’ (p.12). Also, McCorduck proposes that the central turquoise and gold vertical streaks are ‘the silhouetted torsos of a human couple standing together in embrace’. She reads the series of forms to the left of this central motif as having sexual allusions. She refers to the ‘large butterfly-shaped image in shades of red, gold, and pink that evokes the vulva’, and notes that ‘the parallel stripes have turned horizontal, evoking venetian blinds (themselves ripe with historical and sexual reference), then vertical again, evoking billowing curtains perhaps signifying the hidden, the occult, or even afternoon delights’. The forms to the right of the centre, McCorduck suggests, ‘call to mind topological diagrams, perhaps the process of replication at the DNA level, perhaps computational recursion (a function that calls another copy of itself)’. However, McCorduck (p.13) notes that when asked about what ‘Before the Event’ might represent Cohen stated, ‘I don't know what I had in mind then, why I painted it as I did. All I can say is I'm glad the forms mean enough to evoke a response from a viewer after all this time’.

In 1963 the Robert Fraser Gallery exhibited twelve of Cohen's paintings executed that year, although ‘Before the Event’ was not among them. An additional five canvases including T04856 were shown in the Whitechapel exhibition two years later and one further painting, “Transit”, 1963, was reproduced in Das Kunstwerk, (vol.19, Oct. 1965, p.8). Cohen considers these works as a series only in the sense that '“series” implies that things follow each other in time: nothing more. I've never completed a series, in that I never stop one preoccupation and start another’ (letter to the compiler). Cohen added that the works in the series influence each other in that ‘each individual act adds to one's total knowledge and modifies one's outlook’.

The first work in the series is titled ‘Ames’ and dated January 1963 (a homage to Adelbert Ames, an American psychologist whose research in the field of visual perception influenced Cohen at the time). Cohen executed at least two further paintings during July 1963, namely, ‘Optional Dimensions’ (not repr.) and ‘Conclave’ (repr. Whitechapel Art Gallery exh. cat., 1965, [p.36]). ‘Conclave’ is similar to ‘Before the Event’ in its complex arrangement of individual folded forms reminiscent of pipes or cables and reels of film.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996


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